FORT WORTH -- For generations of North Texans, there's been one surefire way to beat the heat: escape to the cool, spring-fed waters of Burger's Lake, an old-school oasis tucked away in the big city.
Even last year's drought couldn't slow the heartbeat of the swimming hole, a spring that emerges from the ground at 69 degrees and flows at 300 gallons a minute, enough to refill the 1-acre lake every four days.
Overflow from the lake and two other small springs spill into the West Fork of the Trinity River.
"The spring is the jewel of the property. It never wavered during the drought," said Curtis Mahan, who along with his wife, Sharon, and parents, L.S. and Kay Mahan, bought the 28-acre park in 2007.
"Last year was very good for us. People want to get wet when its hot," Curtis Mahan said this week as he and his parents manned the entry, where cars of customers were waiting before the 9 a.m. opening, intent on snagging a picnic table at "Favorite Hill," a coveted spot overlooking the center of the lake.
And with 100-degree temperatures expected this weekend, the line will only get longer.
"This is as close to heaven or paradise that I will ever get," quips 72-year-old L.S. Mahan of the retro resort at 1200 Meandering Drive in Fort Worth, between the naval air station and River Oaks.
But it hasn't always been a picnic in the park.
A rainy summer slowed traffic considerably in 2007, the Mahans' first season.
Then in 2008, the swimming hole was closed for 10 days after an outbreak of cryptosporidium, a parasite found in fecal matter, sickened swimmers there and at other area water parks.
In response, the Mahans updated the water purification process by adding a large Ozonator, a machine that converts bottled oxygen into ozone, which helps break down contaminants. It is used in conjunction with sand filtration and chlorination to disinfect the lake.
"It was a rough start, but we weathered it," said Curtis Mahan, a certified pool operator and lifeguard, who owned a swimming pool business for 20 years before buying the lake.
"We're very conscious of safety," he said, noting that at least 10 lifeguards are always on duty and that 18 to 20 work the weekends.
The lake is open seven days a week from Mother's Day weekend through Labor Day. Admission is $12 for ages 7 and up and $5 for ages 1 to 6.
Mary Dixon-Ayala, 37, has savored Burger's Lake since she was a kid. She appreciates an old-fashioned place where alcohol and loud music are banned; and people sun on a sandy beach and read or nap in the shade despite a steady buzz of kids squealing and diving boards clacking.
Dixon-Ayala and eight relatives were celebrating one of her children's birthdays with a cookout on Favorite Hill.
"This is our spot. We come early and stay all day," she said. The kids get so worn out that they fall asleep as soon as we leave."
At a nearby picnic table, Amy Stevens, 35, of Aledo was presiding over lunch for her restless army of five kids, ages 1 to 9.
"It's like being at the beach," she said.
The sand springs that form the lake were originally developed as Paul Schneider's Goldfish Hatchery. Schneider also raised minnows and water lilies, and fashioned an ingenious series of 40 or so rock tanks built along a slight incline, creating a gravity-fed flow of water from tank to tank. Schneider's stock was sold from a stone aquarium house.
In 1902 he built a petrified-wood house that looks like it was transported from an enchanted forest. The fairy-tale home at the park entry still shelters the Mahan clan.
At some point, Schneider also dredged the lake with a plow and a mule and opened it for swimming. In 1929, traveling salesman Hugo Burger realized the potential of the springs, and he and his wife, Gladys, bought the property from Schneider for $50,000, Curtis Mahan said.
Burger improved the lake, adding two sandy beaches, diving boards and a grove of pecan trees to the bur oaks, cottonwoods and sycamores that grow around the springs.
'There's nothing like it'
D.L and Donna Black bought the resort in 1962 and ran it until 1999, when it was bought by Jimmy Dent, who then sold it to the Mahans.
But D.L. Black remains deeply embedded in the lake's family vibe.
With the death of his wife five months ago, the feisty 82-year-old has been, as he puts it, "adopted by the Mahans."
Black happily recounts his rigorous routine: He's at the lake at 9 a.m. and holds court until noon. Then he's off for a 1-mile walk, lunch and a little TV time, followed by three hours of Internet poker stoked by two rum-and-Cokes.
"It's a pretty good day," he said.
"This place keeps me going. There's nothing like it in the country," said Black, who quickly recognized Dayton Bailey when he stopped to pay admission. Bailey was a lifeguard at the lake from 1966 to 1971, and Black was best man at his wedding.
"Owning this place was like raising 20 or 25 kids every year," Black said of his legions of lifeguards.
The Mahans waved Bailey's truck through the entry -- the lake's former lifeguards pay no fee.
"Hey, they're still lifeguards at heart. They know what to look for," Curtis Mahan said.
A value for families
There's another enduring part of Burger's Lake timeless charm.
For $300, patrons can buy a 50-visit family punch card which is good for up to six people a day. It drops the cost to $6 a visit and has no expiration date.
"We've got people using them from 15 years ago," Curtis Mahan said. "It's a sweet deal."
Another yearly ritual is the draining of the sandy-bottomed lake when the season ends. It turns into a treasure hunt of sorts, with rings, bracelets and watches emerging from the deep.
"Last year, a woman searched for a lost wedding band for three weekends," Curtis Mahan said. "After a rain, it showed up. She was in tears when we gave it back. We find about 60 percent of the stuff on our lost-and-found list."
Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981